Why the Marlboro man will probably beat a lifetime tobacco ban

10 December 2021

By Michelle Jongenelis Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

Australia has long been recognised as a world leader in tobacco control. Our success can be attributed to the implementation of a suite of tobacco control measures such as ongoing increases in tobacco excise, anti-smoking media campaigns, and the introduction of smoke-free laws.

Unfortunately, our position on the leaderboard looks set to tumble. The range of strict tobacco control measures announced by New Zealand under their Smokefree Aotearoa 2025 Action Plan will almost certainly knock us off our pedestal.

The New Zealand government announced on Thursday new legislation under which anyone born after 2008 will never be legally able to purchase tobacco. The country aims to reduce its national smoking rate to 5 per cent by 2025.

I can hear you thinking “Who cares? Nobody smokes these days anyway.” Well, 2.9 million Australians beg to differ. That’s the number of people aged 14 years and over who reported being current smokers in 2019.

Smoking remains Australia’s leading risk factor for death and disease. It will kill around 21,000 smokers every year and lead to 1 in 5 cancer diagnoses. It will cost our economy $136.9 billion every year, considerably more than the $14.75 billion generated by tobacco excise.

Despite these worrying statistics, Australia’s investment in evidence-based tobacco control measures has fallen well below international benchmarks. Our National Tobacco Strategy 2012-2018 is out of date.

If Australia is to prevent up to 1.6 million smokers from dying prematurely and achieve its goal of less than 5 per cent smoking prevalence by 2030, we should follow New Zealand’s lead.

We must create a smoke-free generation by prohibiting the sale, delivery, and supply of tobacco products to those born after a certain date, thus making it illegal to ever provide these individuals with such products even after they turn 18 years of age.

The development and implementation of an evidence-based national cessation strategy as per our obligations under Article 14 of the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control will be critical to ensuring that those who want to quit smoking are adequately supported to do so.

Tobacco industry gimmicks (e.g., menthol, crush balls, sugar additives and filters) that make cigarettes more palatable and addictive, and that create an impression the product is less harmful (spoiler alert: it isn’t) should be eliminated.

It is critical that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (among whom smoking rates are estimated at 43 per cent) are involved in leading tobacco control decision-making.

The availability of tobacco products should be reduced by placing restrictions on who can sell these products and where, thus ensuring retailers aren’t clustered in Australia’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Emerging tobacco products, such as heated tobacco, that industry claims are less harmful but are merely a disguise being used to circumvent increasingly strict tobacco control measures should continue to be banned.

To ensure the significant increase in youth uptake of electronic cigarettes does not persist we must continue to regulate these harmful devices.

Seems like a no-brainer doesn’t it? What could possibly get in the way of Australia passing legislation that will save millions of lives? Perhaps the fact that some of Australia’s political parties continue to receive donations.

Tobacco giant Philip Morris International donated $55,000 to the Nationals in 2019.

And in June 2021, when it was revealed that the National Party had received more than $200,000 in donations from Philip Morris International in the last 5 years, Deputy Prime Minister and National Party leader Barnaby Joyce said that cigarettes were a legal product and that if Philip Morris wanted to donate to a political party they could.

With Big Tobacco firmly supported by some parties we look set to ship our tobacco control crown over the Tasman.

The Marlboro Man has beaten public health yet again.